Fighting Words


Bush rushing to war? Nonsense.

When George W. Bush was running for president, he campaigned energetically against Al Gore by objecting to the idea of “nation-building” (and, incidentally, to the Clinton-era practice of employing “secret evidence” in trials of suspected terrorists). After taking office, he opened an early discussion on the possibility of lifting Iraqi sanctions, which had obviously begun to suffer from diminishing returns. He even considered reviewing the “no-fly” zones that, for a wearisome decade or so, had placed an Anglo-American protective shield over the Kurdish and Shiite zones of Saddam’s awful dominion.

In all of these respects, Bush was giving a sympathetic ear to a group of oilmen and generals, the first of whom did not like to see Iraqi oil being traded only with other countries, and the second of whom did not care to risk their sophisticated aircraft on drab, routine missions. Within his Cabinet and elsewhere in his administration, the president included a number of people who still believed that his father had been right, in 1991, to evacuate Iraq while leaving the Saddam Hussein regime in place. (Of this group, as far as I know, George Bush Sr. remains a dues-paying member, as do Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger. Only Vice President Dick Cheney, of the original team, is understood to have changed his mind—and that could well be for reasons of loyalty.)

Some “drumbeat.” Some “drive to war.” Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has:

1) Been to both houses of Congress in order to secure a warrant for intervention.

2) Been to the United Nations repeatedly to make the case; once to get a 15-0 Security Council resolution that contained the terms of its own enforcement; once to illustrate Iraqi noncompliance; and now again to prepare a second resolution. It could reasonably be argued that under the terms of the first resolution it was not required to take the latter two steps.

Meanwhile, it is notorious that conditions for desert fighting decay, in point of strategic advantage to the coalition, with every day that lengthens February into March. It must also be obvious that Saddam Hussein’s goons have been put on notice to prepare their usual tactic of warfare against civilians and of sabotage against resources. (Last time, they blew up the Kuwaiti oilfields even as they were abandoning Kuwait itself under an agreed international truce.)

That truce is more than 10 years old, has been violated every day of those 10 years, and would have been violated even more comprehensively if it were not for continuous air patrols that actually constitute an informal state of “war.”

The other day I caught Sen. Hillary Clinton on some show from Albany, N.Y., where she said, with a knowing intonation, that obviously there were people in the Bush administration who had “an old score” to settle with Saddam Hussein. Many in the audience nodded appreciatively, as if being initiated into the secret of a grudge match. There are indeed people in the administration who never shared the prevailing Republican view that the last Gulf War was ended on acceptable or durable terms. But in eight of the intervening years Sen. Clinton’s husband was president of the United States, and it can hardly have escaped her notice that he called several times for the forcible disarmament of Saddam Hussein, stated roundly that Saddam pursued the acquisition of weapons of genocide only in order to use them, bombed Iraq for its part in a murder-attempt on a former president, urged the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act (which carried the Senate nem con), and bombed Iraq again during every day of his own impeachment trial in the same deliberative body. True, he didn’t always consult the United Nations so painstakingly. But then, nor was he confronted by a “peace” movement filling the streets and calling him an addict of aggression.

If there has been a “drumbeat,” then, it has been pounding itself out and rat-a-tat-tatting away for a very considerable time. Those who now call for “more time”—for inspections or what have you—are acting as if the confrontation with Saddam Hussein began only a few months ago, as if he did not seek such a confrontation, and as if it were avoidable. These are all different versions of the same elementary mistake.

Saddam Hussein could have bought his regime a fresh lease on its ghastly life if he had been even slightly willing to “make nice,” and the United States could have lowered its muzzle deep into Iraqi oil-wells on the same unspoken understanding. It is even possible that at the last moment Saddam will try the options of “self-preservation” that his fans believe he both possesses and understands. There would be those, some of them in high positions in Washington, who would be willing to dump the Iraqi opposition and the Kurds on just this wager. (It’s barely possible to imagine anything more shameful, but those who hope for such outcomes must be prepared to live with what they desire.) However, those who believe that the only way for America to get access to oil is to take the chances of conflict and perhaps occupation have not even bothered to study the history of the region and can’t be expected to start now.

But, reply those in the peace camp, weren’t the troops already dispatched and the bases readied? Yes, they were, as they had been before. Do you wish they hadn’t been? That could entail the always quite possible implosion of an already deeply traumatized Iraq, with perhaps opportunistic interventions from neighboring states and civil strife within Iraq itself. (The very dread consequences, indeed, which the anti-war movement somehow believes can only arise from a policy of regime change.) Now at any rate, the forces that can prevent the sabotage of the oilfields and soften the meltdown of the state are within reach. Do those who want a “second resolution” also want to start such a complex buildup and deployment only on the day after the resolution passes? (They do, of course, which is what shows their culpable lack of seriousness.) Even the jackal Jacques Chirac has more sense than this: His only useful aircraft carrier is already in range in case he needs to switch sides.

Suppose it was the other way about (as it was in Bosnia and Kosovo and as one wishes it had not been with Rwanda). Suppose that the majority of European states or U.N. members urgently desired swift action, while the U.S. administration preferred to wait and see? To whom, in any event, would the task of intervention actually be delegated? The question answers itself, and it exposes the “drumbeat” and “drive” talk as idle chatter. Ask any Iraqi dissident and he or she will tell you what you already know (and what some anti-war propaganda actually states, without appreciating its own implications): Washington has been too patient with Saddam Hussein and for far too long.